Following stops by the national tours of The Light in the Piazza and Spamalot, Cincinnati audiences now get to experience the laugh-out-loud musical mayhem created by The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Armed with a first-rate cast, the touring production of this oddly engaging little show has the humor, heart, and uniqueness to entertain people from just about every demographic.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers a satirical look at six wacky kids (played by adults), along with some audience volunteers, competing in their local county spelling bee. There are three adults along to oversee the competition, and the contestants learn much about life and themselves as they use their individual and eccentric techniques in spelling the difficult words they're given.
Spelling Bee started as an experimental theater piece called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was created by Rebecca Feldman and her improvisational group The Farm. Rachel Sheinkin was brought in as the official book writer to provide structure and to focus the story and characters. Ms. Sheinkin's sharp wit, careful balance between comedic punch and emotional connection, and winning dialogue won her the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. By using four audience volunteers (opening night's group included Cincinnati Reds owner Bob Castellini), there is still room for some improv hilarity, mostly found in the bios provided for the volunteers as they come forth to spell.
The score for the show is by tunesmith William Finn. If the songs are not quite up to the level of his masterpiece Falsettos, Mr. Finn's style is just right for these quirky characters and provides moments of both great humor and deep personal insight. Though Finn uses forced rhymes and seemingly unnecessary profanity occasionally, his conversational lyrics and jaunty melodies make the songs accessible. Tunes such as "I Speak Six Languages," "My Friend, The Dictionary," and "The I Love You Song" each capture in both music and lyrics the adolescent longings of fitting in and seeking approval from family and peers. A song with a title like "My Unfortunate Erection," which chronicles how one speller gets distracted during the bee, shows that this Spelling Bee leans toward being more appropriate for adult audiences, though many teenagers will certainly empathize.
The cast for this tour is outstanding without exception. Jennifer Simard displays the apt polish and class as grown-up spelling bee host Rona Lisa Peretti, who relives her own spelling bee win from years ago as she guides the students and the audience through the musical. As Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, James Kall drolly delivers many of the show's funniest lines. Alan H. Green shows versatility and a great singing voice as "Comfort Counselor" Mitch Mahoney.
Michael Zahler skillfully captures the eccentric clueless qualities of loveable loser Leaf Coneybear, and Sarah Stiles is a hoot as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the fiery activist daughter of two gay dads. Miguel Cervantes (Chip Tolentino) is appropriately whiny as the quickly disposed returning champ, and Katie Boren (Marcy Park) shows off a wealth of well-honed talents during her big number, "I Speak Six Languages." As William Barfee, the obnoxious buffoon who spells words using his "magic foot," Eric Petersen is uproariously funny. Lauren Worsham is endearing as the meek and adorable Olive Ostrovsky, and possesses a great singing voice as well.
Director James Lapine has carefully molded the piece to communicate the personal universal challenges facing these adolescents while also keeping the comedic gems coming at a rapid pace. It takes great skill for us to want to root for all of these characters while also laughing at their predicaments, but Mr. Lapine succeeds in delivering them both. The zany choreography by Dan Knechtges, which even involves the audience volunteers at times, is appropriate and funny. Jodie Moore leads the sprightly five-piece band that provides Michael Starobin's playful orchestrations.
In New York, Spelling Bee plays in the Circle In the Square Theater, with seating on three sides. There, the entire lobby and theater space is made to resemble a school gymnasium. Though significant efforts are made to bring that same atmosphere to the national touring spaces, it is impossible to recreate that same feeling in a huge proscenium stage. However, with the cast playing only to one direction, the blocking of some songs is improved over Broadway.
Beowulf Boritt's set has been carefully altered to fit the new stage format, and delightfully captures the satire, fantasy, and realism of the setting and show. The lighting by Natasha Katz is splendid as usual, and Jennifer Caprio's costumes amusingly walk the line between camp and authenticity. For the second straight opening night of a touring Broadway show at the Aronoff, the sound execution was unacceptable, with many missed entrances and glitches.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is fun entertainment, and works so well because we care about the characters and can see ourselves in them. So, when we laugh, we are laughing at ourselves. The tour, which boasts an excellent cast, continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio through November 26, 2006. For more information and tickets, call (513) 241-7469.
(Program Note: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had been scheduled to complete the quartet of 2005 Best Musical Tony nominees that would come to Cincinnati in 2006. However, its stop here has been cancelled while the tour is retooled, and Chita Rivera: A Dancer's Life will begin its national tour here in the place of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels from December 19 – 31, 2006.)